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Last Updated: Monday, 25 October, 2004, 11:37 GMT 12:37 UK
In defence of the oboe
Uncool? Says who?
Music teaching to children has got a thumbs-up from the school standards inspector, but while the violin, flute, guitar and recorder rank as the most popular instruments, the oboe is seen as uncool.

Cellist Julian Lloyd Webber, who campaigns for better music teaching in schools, says the oboe is going through a "rough time" and lack of interest at school level could spell trouble for symphony orchestras of the future.

So is the oboe a one-way ticket to social pariah status? Lucy Bevan, 35, who has been playing the instrument since school, says children have got it all wrong.

There's no doubt it's a difficult instrument to master. The trickiest thing when learning the oboe is to produce a sound that is not reminiscent of birdlife. In my case, the phrase 'pregnant duck' was bandied around for quite a while.

I took up the oboe at 12 or 13. I'd excelled at the recorder, but it wasn't taken seriously as an instrument. When my mum suggested the oboe, I wasn't really sure what it was. But shortly afterwards she took me to a concert and in the slow movement of Schubert's 9th symphony, where the oboe really wipes the floor, she nudged me and said 'that's what we were talking about'. I was sold!

It made me think, and still does, of the human voice, although I suppose all wind players like to think their instrument is the most 'vocal'.

1. Violin
2. Flute
3. Guitar
4. Recorder
5. Clarinet
6. Voice
7. Keyboard
8. Trumpet
Source: Ofsted

I quickly realised that the oboe was certainly not seen as an easy option. It's a long, slow haul and I'm sure that's why children either give the instrument a wide berth or lose interest.

Mastering the reed, into which you blow, means you are frankly brilliant if you make a sound that could be described as consistently pleasant in under two years. But the bonus is that along the way you have acquired a reasonable technical mastery of the complicated keys.

When the two aspects come together, it is dynamite.

I'm not a clock watcher or a dreamer, but in all honesty there are some days when it's hard to get the oboe out of my mind and I eagerly anticipate the evening's rehearsal or concert.

The oboe has never been cool - any instrument that renders its player to a bulging puce mess is always going to have some image problems - although it did get an outing on Miles Davis's seminal Sketches of Spain. Oboists have a reputation of being responsible types, probably because tradition dictates it's the one instrument the rest of the orchestra tunes to.

Although we like to trade on the notion that we are under unbearable pressure to come up with a perfect A440 [the standard tuning pitch] we secretly enjoy being in charge.

These days I regularly play in amateur chamber orchestras and get involved in all sorts of projects from off-the-cuff concerts to big performances. It's worth remembering that the oboe's select appeal means you get all the playing that's going, unlike a flute player on a roster.

It will never have the range of attack or special effects the clarinet or sax can draw on, and so will probably always be foiled by the apparent 'sameyness' of sounds. But listen closely and there's a whole universe in there.

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Two further observations: the first is the need today for quick results, without which people soon lose interest rather than strive for perfection; the second is the rather frightening cost of the instrument itself. Once you have mastered the initial skills of the intrument most people will want a better, second instrument, which will cost between 1,500 and 5,000.
Richard Hurst, England

The oboe fails to stand comparison with its far more amenable and beautiful cousin, the clarinet. It has a far richer and rounder timbre, a more delicate dynamic and larger and more developed musical repertoire. Plus the embouchure - the mouthpiece - is easier for young people to pick up and masteer. Plus just listen to Mozart's Clarinet Quintet.
Chris Arning, UK

Sameness of sound! I can't agree. The oboe speaks more clearly than any instrument in the orchestra given a chance. But I do support what this player says and I would like to add the pure joy of making it "talk".
Simonne, Nepal

In the ranking of "popular" instruments, cost is clearly a factor - all the top spots are filled by relatively affordable instruments. By contrast, an oboe, even one of student-quality bought secondhand, will set you back 500 or so.
Roger Cloake, U.K.

I know for a fact that my brother desperately wanted to play one but was told that his mouth was "the wrong shape" to master the embouchure. He ended up an embittered clarinettist instead, and gave up soon afterwards.
Tim from Henley, UK

I have played the oboe for nearly 6 years now and love it. I play in a concert band and you get all the great tunes, but without any of the hard slog the clarinets and flutes have to do! There's also a feeling of exclusivity you don't get with other instruments. The only downside is the cost - a half decent reed costs around 10 - 12.
Jen, UK

I play the baroque oboe, and know many oboeists. Whilst we have a reputation for being a bit neurotic ( understandable) we're all deeply musical, and we have the best solos! And anyone who thinks we're not glamorous should take a look at the Double Reed Society Magazine!
Susan, UK

I just can't agree that the clarinet is a more beautiful instument. Anyone who has heard the oboe solos from the film 'The Mission' or the Fantasia on British Sea Songs at the Last Night of the Proms must know what a beautiful sound a well-played oboe can make. And I'm not biased - I play the trumpet!
James, England

Chris Arning is plain wrong. The plaintive sound of the oboe well played is one of the most beautiful sounds devised by mankind. I was a clarinettist and regularly envied by fellow oboists, but having persuaded my parents to fork out for a clarinet ...
Edward, Uk

When I arrived at secondary school our music teacher asked us what instruments we would like to play. I said the oboe. This comment was dismissed out of hand as there was no oboe teacher. I was not even encouraged to play the clarinet or flute as an alternative.
Anon, UK

I struggled to get a "nice sound" out of the oboe for well over a decade. It was a deeply unpleasant experience. You need nerves of steel, lips of rubber and the diaphragm of a rhinoceros. I finally gave up a few years ago and immediately switched to the tenor saxophone. I'm pleased to report that my health, not to mention my love life, is much improved.
Matt, UK

If you want to hear a magnificent rendering of the oboe listen to Fidelio (Beethoven) beginning of Act Two when the Angel of Comfort appears to Florestan- remarkable - it is the oboe that sounds a resurrection.
Jim Brand, Italy

Don't forget the Cor Anglais! The big brother of the oboe which gets some of the most ravishing tunes to play in the orchestral repertoire.
Maxwell Spiers (Cor Anglais - Royal Ballet Sinfonia),

I play the flute in an small orchestra and I can only remember once (in about eight years since I've been going) that there was an oboe there.
Becca, UK

I don't think cost can be the reason why oboes are currently unpopular, given that the violin has the top slot in popularity. Neither, given the squawks and screeches coming out of a violin at the start, can the years of practice to produce a good sound! I think it's probably a lack of education: a lot of kids haven't even heard of an oboe but will recognise a guitar or flute.
Martha, UK

Mr Lloyd Webber is concerned that our symphony orchestras will suffer a shortage of oboists in the future. Surely he is aware that at professional level even the "unpopular" oboe is oversubscribed. There are already too many outstanding players who are struggling to sustain an orchestral living in this country.
Clare, UK

As a lapsed grade 8 oboe Player I'd like to say that actually I think that there is a bit of a myth about how hard it is to learn how to play the oboe. The basic fingering positions are the same as for the descant recorder and once you can master the diaphragm control needed to blow the reed I don't think it's that tricky. As an Oboist I got more respect from conductors and music teachers as they wanted me to stay in their orchestras and bands unlike the multitude of flute and clarinet players
Jenny, Bristol, UK

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